I blog a fair bit about the way science stories are (mis)represented in the press. And when I do, I always wonder what the original press release (from the intitution to the media) would have been like. Now Ben Goldacre’s posted an excellent item on one such release.
The release in question came from a UK pest control firm, & it contained ‘data’ that seemed to show alarmingly high levels of pest infestation on London public transport. (Or, in the case of dust mites, surprisingly low. Only 500 of these tiny critters in a whole railway carriage?) Things like cockroaches, bedbugs, fleas. (Apparently bedbugs are raising their nasty little heads in New Zealand – not something I’d want to see gain a significant foothold here!). Cue a number of rather hysterical media articles.
Ben has done his usual thorough job of investigating this one. And he found – that the company did no studies whatsoever of in-service public transport vehicles. None. Zero. Zilch. Their scary figures were based on a model, which made a whole lot of unsupported & highly unlikely assumptions. As Ben hasn’t been able to track down the original release, we can’t be certain of its contents. But I have to say – to pretend some sort of scientific support for the numbers sent out to the media is to misrepresent what was done as good science. And that does none of us any favours.